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It’s Getting Hotter: New Heat Hazard Regulations Might Be on the Horizon

Outdoor worker drinks water in the shade

Last year, the U.S. experienced its hottest summer on record. Globally, the three-month period was the second-warmest recorded, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

It’s a trend the National Weather Service Prediction Center foresees continuing in 2024 due to the likely impacts of the weather phenomenon La Niña. Rising temperatures, higher heat indexes and dangerous air quality levels from wildfire smoke are becoming the new normal and will create new challenges in protecting outdoor workers.

Advocates are pushing for changes that would expand existing regulations. New York Attorney General Letitia James is leading a coalition of 10 attorneys general to protect workers from the dangers of exposure to extreme heat in the workplace. Karen Woodall, executive director of Florida’s People’s Advocacy Center, has promoted a statewide bill in Florida.

While no new laws or regulations has been implemented yet, Xavier Alcaraz, managing principal and health, safety and well-being practice director at BSI, a safety consulting practice, said this is a rule employers should begin preparing for. In addition to the proposed legislation mentioned, Alcaraz points to a drafted federal regulation and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) three-year National Emphasis Program, which includes heat hazards during inspections.

“OSHA will eventually implement new legislation around heat illness, and employers can benefit from being prepared for that scenario,” he said.

Employer groups are on notice. “ASA [American Staffing Association] worked with OSHA on the Temporary Worker Initiative, which created guidance documents that outline safety and health obligations employers should meet to ensure their workplaces are safer for temporary employees, said Brittany Sakata, general counsel for the American Staffing Association.

While OSHA had no comment on James’ call for action, an OSHA spokesperson said, “Employers have a moral and legal obligation to protect workers against heat. At a minimum, employers should provide adequate water, rest breaks, and shade or a cool rest area for employees. They should also train employees on heat illness preventionsigns of heat illness, and how to act immediately if they or another employee appears to be suffering from a heat-related illness.”

Employers who institute new heat safety measures could reap benefits, too, in a more engaged and effective workforce.

“It is worth noting that investing in safety programs is not just about improving worker safety,” said Alcaraz, pointing to research showing it will lead to a more productive and loyal workforce.

Plan Ahead

It may be the heart of winter now, but Sakata emphasized that it’s never too early for employers to start preparing for ways to protect workers and prevent heat-related injuries and illnesses on the jobsite.

“Employers can’t wait until summer to begin thinking about extreme heat protection,” she said. “The key to protecting workers from the extreme heat is to develop and implement safety procedures early and train workers so that everyone is familiar with them once summer rolls around.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least 436 workers died from heat exposure from 2011 through 2021. Thirty-six workers died in 2021, the lowest number of deaths since 2017.

Reporting by the Tampa Bay Times highlighted the findings from an Emory University researcher  who noted that working outdoors in the heat can raise workers’ core body temperatures to levels “similar to working with a fever” and that simple modifications such as wearing a wet bandana and drinking electrolytes can protect workers’ health.

“Employers can take a number of practical steps today to prepare their workplaces for the extreme heat of the summer months,” Sakata said.

She offered these examples:

  • Provide regular access to cool water and identify potential areas for shade and rest.
  • Train new and returning employees to identify heat illness. Implement the acclimatization process, in which a person gradually increases their exposure to hot environment conditions.
  • Implement a “buddy” system that pairs workers together and makes it easier for co-workers to identify signs of heat illness.

“Employers should give new or returning employees a chance to gradually acclimatize (or become used to working in hot temperatures), to be trained and plan for emergencies, and to monitor for heat signs/symptoms,” an OSHA spokesperson said. “If workers believe their working conditions are unsafe or unhealthful, or if they think their employer is not following OSHA standards, they can file a confidential complaint with OSHA.”

Alcaraz noted that technological advances such as cooling vests, wearable smart monitors, and mobile apps such as those created by OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health can assist employers and workers with monitoring heat conditions.

“Organizations may need to consider whether their heat illness prevention programs are appropriately balancing job requirements with workers’ safety,” Alcaraz said. “Effective programs can include policies and procedures that address roles and responsibilities, risk assessment, prevention measures, training and awareness, monitoring weather and employee health, and emergency response plans.”

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.


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